Coronavirus: Expert warns Aucklanders to remain vigilant ahead of level drop

A COVID-19 modeller and an epidemiologist says the alert level changes at the end of last week were justified, despite no new community cases for five days.

Prof Shaun Hendy, from Auckland University research centre Te Pūnaha Matatini, told Checkpoint Cabinet's decision to move down alert levels this coming Sunday at 6am was the obvious one to make.

"We went to alert level 3 when we didn't really understand the source of the new case that was discovered last weekend. Over the course of the week I think we've got a handle on that cluster, and especially with a very high testing rates that we've had this week, that will give them some confidence that the cluster is contained and that they do have the right people isolated."

Prof Hendy said it was still important to be vigilant and remember incubation of the virus could be up to two weeks.

"So it's possible for someone to have been exposed last week, and they could have tested negative this week, and then they could go on to develop the disease this coming week, and could go on to spark another cluster so the risk doesn't go completely to zero with this move.

"It is important that we all stay vigilant, particularly people in Auckland. People in Auckland who have perhaps saved up travel and are gonna leave in the next few days too, for whatever reason, should behave as if they're alert level 2 when they're outside the Auckland region."

He said every time we moved alert levels it was a "calculated risk", and it relied on people to stick to the rules, and being aware of isolating and testing if symptoms did appear.

"We do have to accept some degree of life has to go back to normal, but these are all calculated risks that we have to take."

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield also issued a new Section 70 order, which would mean that any person who attended City Fitness Hunters Plaza on February 20 between 11:15am and 1:45pm, or February 26 between 3:25pm and 4:30pm, as well as anyone who is a close, close-plus or casual contacts is required to:

  • isolate at their usual home
  • report for testing at a specified time
  • accept testing and isolate until they are told officially that they no longer need to.

Prof Hendy said it was good to see the extra precautions in the health order, due to the high-risk nature of the exposure locations and large number of contacts associated with them.

"There's a lot of variability in the way that this disease can spread and we know it's often spread via superspreading events, and so that has some counterintuitive effects.

"Some people actually don't go on to infect many other people at all so in fact four out of five people will not infect [any] one else, or just one other person, that's what the stats tell us. It's that fifth person that can go on to infect a large number of others.

"I think what we can say at this point is, we've ruled out a large spreading, with the amount of testing we've done ... but there's still a chance that there's maybe one other infection out there and of course that's what caught us last time.

"I wouldn't say it's likely, but it's still possible that we have a small number of other infections out there and that we could see a resurgence of this cluster in the coming week."

Shaun Hendy.
Shaun Hendy. Photo credit: The AM Show

He said to prevent that, people needed to remain vigilant and not be complacent.

"We're in this for the long haul. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, the vaccination program has started ... but it's a long battle, and we just can't let our guard down so it's certainly a concern that maybe people may be complacent.

"I just advise people to check out the news from overseas, people in many countries have had a long struggle, much tougher than the one that we've undergone here. So it's just important to remember that while things are tough in New Zealand at the moment, they could be a lot worse if we let our guard down."

He said having one or two more cases wouldn't be the issue, but "with this variant the cluster has the potential to grow very rapidly." He said if a cluster with this variant expanded, it would be hard to contain it.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker told Checkpoint all the signs were positive that the February cluster was under control.

"Well, I think the system now is that if you suspect there's transmission in the community - you don't know where outbreak has come from, you basically have to assume the worst. ... This is behaving much more like a border failure that has caused a chain of transmission and those outbreaks are manageable with contact tracing in normal circumstances. But this outbreak has had a few extra problems or challenges thrown at it, which I think has obviously pushed back into being a harder one to contain."

With that in consideration, the lockdown was justified, Prof Baker said.

He said the contact tracing system "should be sufficient to stamp out any remaining cases if they occur at all".

Cabinet is due to reconsider alert levels again next week, with Auckland possibly moving down a level at the start of the next weekend.

Prof Baker said there should be "no evidence of onward transmission from any of these identified cases" for that to happen.

"We always have to be aware of the incubation period, you know it can be up to two weeks. We're always looking backwards, that's a reason why you need time to get a sense of the extent of every outbreak."

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff told Checkpoint by and large the country was coming through the lockdown pretty well and he was glad about the alert level news.

"That's not to minimise at all the cost to people in some sections of the community. When we go to level 3, there's probably 250,000 people who can't work across Auckland - that impacts on incomes, that impacts on jobs, it impacts on businesses."

He said he made it clear to the government that he wanted Aucklanders to be first in line when the general rollout of the vaccine starts.

"It does feel like a ghost down [in level 3]. I think we can bounce back but I think there's some lessons to take from it, and one of the lessons surely is in terms of the vaccination ... it's the city that was at such risk that it was put into lockdown or level 3 restrictions four times now, we are the ones that need to get that vaccination available to us first, and probably in particular starting in south Auckland."

He said protecting Aucklanders would also have implications on the rest of the country and the economic wellbeing of the country.

He acknowledged the central city would still be taking a hit despite the alert level announcement.

"I'm not despondent about it, but of course the city centre's going to take a hit, when you don't get the cruiseliners in, when you don't get the international tourists in ... when you don't get the international students in when two-thirds of them end up coming to Auckland, and when people do get into that habit of 'my God, it's lockdown maybe we're safer at home'. We will get past the feeling of you have to be at home to be safe ... I hope it's not going to be 10 months."